War and Covid slow trade in Saluki dogs

On his motorbike, Mohammed Derbas speeds across a field in northeast Syria, slender Saluki dogs galloping behind.

He hopes to export them for racing in the Gulf, despite war and coronavirus.

Salukis, cousins of the greyhound, have been used for hunting for thousands of years in the Middle East and are some of the fastest canines.

Salukis and greyhounds, which have been used for hunting for thousands of years, are among the fastest canines. Al-Derbasiyah is famous for breeding and exporting them to the Gulf, notably to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where desert dog races are popular. The once lucrative export business, however, was dealt a blow by a nine-year-long conflict and most recently a coronavirus pandemic that has hampered trade and travel. (Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Saluki dogs were revered in ancient Egypt, kept as royal pets and mummified after death.

The village of Ad-Darbasiyah in Syria’s Kurdish-held northeast is famous for breeding and exporting them to the Gulf, notably to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where desert dog races are popular.

The once-lucrative export business, however, was dealt a blow by Syria’s conflict since 2011 and this year’s coronavirus pandemic, both of which have hampered trade and travel.

“Before the conflict, people from the Gulf used to visit us here, in search of the best pedigrees,” said 27-year-old Derbas, who says he has been breeding dogs for 15 years.

Even though business is slowing, Derbas keeps his 100 dogs in top shape.

Tails wagging, they rally around him as soon as he enters the fenced enclosure where they are kept. 

Some hounds have their ears cropped, while others boast long legs partially dyed orange with henna.

Saluki dogs were revered in ancient Egypt, kept as royal pets and mummified after death.

To improve their speed and endurance, he straddles his motorbike and sets off at full speed across the arid fields on the outskirts of his village, the pack of dogs darting after him in a cloud of white dust. 

The dogs he breeds can be sold for one to four million Syrian pounds (around $400 to $1 600 at the black market exchange rate), depending on their characteristics, Derbas said.

The breeder used to export between 100 and 150 dogs annually before the conflict, but that figure has dropped to 20 in recent years.

Airport closures over Covid-19 have further weakened his trade, especially since his dogs are shipped to the Gulf via Damascus airport.

“Because of the novel coronavirus crisis, the airports were closed and our activity stopped,” he said.

But the breeder expects a timid recovery after flights between Syria and Qatar resumed in late October.

In the meantime, he hopes to attract customers through social media instead.

His Instagram profile shows pictures of dead rabbits caught by his Salukis, and videos of the dogs sprinting behind a motorcycle.

Forty-year-old Jihad Mohammad shares the same passion.

“I’m so happy when I go out hunting” with the dogs, he said.

Mohammad said what was once a beloved hobby — training dogs to hunt rabbits — had now become a business for many in the area.

“I bought puppies and now I’m looking after them and training them to run,” he said. 

Shukri Moussa, 70, said some families in Ad-Darbasiyah started breeding Salukis in earnest around 20 years ago.

“Back in the day the Kurds only had them for hunting, but now it’s become a trade,” he said, sitting under a tree in his courtyard, surrounded by his grandchildren.

But he said not everyone welcomed the idea as socially acceptable.

“Sometimes it upsets the villagers because they eat the chickens,” he said. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Delil Souleiman
Delil Souleiman is a photojournalist.

Related stories


Subscribers only

How smuggled gold destined for Dubai or Singapore has links...

Three Malagasy citizens were apprehended at OR Tambo International airport, but now the trail is found to connect to France and Mali

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

More top stories

R2.3bn VBS trial expected to only begin in 2022

The state is expected to request a 16 week-long trial, as delays stymie progress in the saga.

Spy boss tells how agency was used to detain Zuma’s...

Day two of State Security Agency testimony at the Zondo commission birthed more revelations that point to the former head of state and agents breaking the law

Covax will take excess doses of Covid vaccines off the...

The global initiative plans to deliver two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations

Eastern Cape citizens don’t have to visit the labour department...

This measure, aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19, may shortly be introduced in other regions.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…